Saturday, March 3, 2012

Calling Out for You, by Karin Fossum

When the flood of business writing left me feeling like a drowned rat at the end of a day, I turned to Karin Fossum for respite. There's nothing like a murder in Norway to put everything back in proper perspective. Calling Out for You is the fifth of Fossum's novels, and the fourth that I've read. (That first one is still awaiting translation.) It's certainly the richest of them that I've read so far, and the critics agreed -- it won the CWA Dagger Award in 2005.

The CWA is, by the way, the Crime Writers' Association, and its members obviously appreciate Fossum's marvelous knack of writing about the horrible ordinariness of most crimes. She doesn't write thrillers, and if you want the kind of suspense that will keep you reading til your eyes glaze over, forget about her. I will not easily forget, though, the characters in this novel -- the killer (assuming the Inspector got the right man), the victim, her widower, or the various and assorted witnesses in the small Norwegian village where the murder takes place. Even Chief Inspector Sejer and his sidekick, Officer Skarre, reveal more of their inner selves in this book. (Fossum maintains that she doesn't want Sejer to attract a cult following, but I feel she's taken that a bit too far -- he was almost a non-entity in the earlier books.)

As the book opens, a mother greets her 20-something son who has just come into the house with a badly scratched face, which he attributes to wrestling with his Rottweiler. Everything about this young man radiates testosterone and anger, and the dog story immediately sounds dubious. The mother can or will see only so much.
Later she hears him in the bathroom, sounding hollow in the tiled space. He's singing. The door to the medicine cupboard slams. He's probably looking for a plaster, silly boy. His mother smiles. All of this violence is only to be expected. He is a man, after all. Later, she would never forget this. The last moment when life was good.
Then we meet Gunder,who is a simple man. That's not to say he's stupid; he is uncomplicated. He sells farm equipment. He is a middle-aged bachelor who relies upon his sister for female companionship. Years before, she gave him an illustrated book about different cultures around the world, and he has always been captivated by the illustration of an Indian woman in traditional attire. Very slowly and methodically, he arrives at the decision to make a trip to India in pursuit of a wife. He knows that the other villagers will find it outlandish, so he buys a traditional Norwegian brooch (which he feels would look nice on a sari) for the bride he feels certain he will meet, and he tells only his sister where he is going and why.
It was clear to him that he wanted an Indian wife. Not because he wanted a subservient and self-sacrificing woman, but because he wanted someone he could cherish and adore. Norwegian women didn't want to be adored. Actually he had never understood them, never understood what they wanted. Because he lacked nothing, as far as he could see. He had a house, a garden, a car, a job, and his kitchen was well equipped. There was under-floor heating in the bathroom, and he had a television and a video recorder, a washing machine, a tumble-dryer, a microwave, a willing heart and money in the bank. Gunder understood that there were other, more abstract factors, which determined whether you were lucky in love – he wasn't an imbecile.
And to everyone's amazement but his own, Gunder does exactly what he sets out to do. He meets Poona in a Mumbai restaurant (where he eats every meal) and, toward the end of his stay, proposes marriage to her. She sees in Gunder a decent, kind man, and she accepts. They marry in India. Gunder returns to Norway, and Poona is to follow later, after putting her affairs in order. Gunder is on his way to meet her at the airport when he receives word that his sister has been in a terrible car crash and is lying comatose in hospital. In a terror, he asks an old friend, a cab-driver, to go fetch Poona. The friend could not find her at the airport, and soon after, one of Gunder's neighbours finds a horribly battered foreign woman's corpse in his meadow.

Watching Gunder trying to absorb the fact that his new wife has been murdered and that his sister may never awaken is nothing short of excruciating. In a very touching scene, Inspector Sejer advises Gunder to confide all his grief to his comatose sister. "Just start talking. No one can hear you in here. Tell her about Poona... Tell her everything that has happened."

Sejer and Skarre have their own frustrations. The people in small villages generally don't like to discuss each other's business with the police. Sejer deeply understands this, and he chats about it with his favourite confidante -- his dog, Kollberg.
"In a place like this," Sejer said aloud and studied the wood and the meadow and Gunwald's house. "In a place like this people will protect one another. That's how it always is. If they've seen something they don't understand they wouldn't dare to say so. They think I must be mistaken, I grew up with him, we've worked together and anyway, he's my cousin. Or neighbour. Or brother. We went to school together. So I won't say anything, it must be a mistake. Human beings are like that. And that's a good thing, isn't it, Kollberg?" He looked at the dog. "We're not talking about evil here, but the good in people which stops them from saying what they know."
One witness, however, is very informative. Linda is a young woman with a less than solid reputation amongst the locals, most of whom find her emotionally off-balance. After meeting young and handsome Officer Skarre, Linda begins to remember increasing numbers of details about the crime scene. It's not long before she believes that fate has thrown her and the gorgeous investigator together for a reason.

She found the telephone directory. Looked under S and found Skarre, Jacob, 45 Nedre Storgate, and his telephone number, which she memorised twice. After that it was burned into her brain. She found the folder with the newspaper cuttings and went upstairs to her room. Stood for a while in front of the mirror. Then she read them all again. She had to keep this case alive. Had to blow on it the way you blew on embers. It had become something that sustained her, almost like a mission.
There are quite a few men who seem like plausible suspects in this senseless and brutal murder. Based upon the information that they've gathered from Linda (a patently unreliable witness) and everyone else in the village (patently uncooperative witnesses) and their gut instincts, the police arrest Gøran, the muscle-bound, angry young man with the scratched face. His parents are devastated, the other villagers run the gamut from disbelieving to accepting that the right man is in jail, and Gøran is cocky and defiant. He quickly learns, however, that Sejer, tall, grey-haired, and soft-spoken, should not be underestimated. He has subtle and devious ways of triggering self-incriminating outbursts. When they begin chatting about body-building and fitness, Gøran at last feels that he is in control of the interview. He suggests an arm-wrestling match.Sejer shrugs. Why not?
Gøran counted to three and pushed violently. Sejer did not attempt to drive Gøran's fist down. He was only concerned to hold out. And he managed that. Gøran's strength exploded in one violent charge, then it died away. Very slowly, Sejer pushed his fist to the table. "Too much static training. Don't forget stamina. Remember that in future." Gøran massaged his shoulders. He didn't feel good.
Have Skarre and Sejer arrested the killer? They think so. We hope so, but Fossum reminds us that unless a killer is caught red-handed, there will always be room for doubt. It's untidy and uncomfortable, and it's just the way life is. 

This novel was published in the US with the title The Indian Bride. I suppose it's a more memorable title, but Calling Out for You is haunting. So many characters in this book are calling out -- for help, for love, for attention. And they almost never get what they seek. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.